‘The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is the only game in town’ – Labour MPs on the new Brexit ‘reality’

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

After a trio of defeats – including the biggest defeat ever suffered by a Prime Minister – Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement was presumed dead. But, Sebastian Whale writes, are some Labour MPs beginning to rethink their opposition? 

Theresa May's Brexit deal was defeated three times in parliament earlier this year
Credit: 
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

After three bruising parliamentary defeats, Theresa May brought forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill as a means of meeting Speaker John Bercow’s requirements for holding another vote. Having failed to win over her party’s eurosceptics, the Prime Minister reached out to the Labour frontbench and held talks with trade unions and backbench MPs from Her Majesty’s Opposition.

The fruits of their endeavours included pledges to give MPs a binding vote on holding a second referendum, dynamic alignment of workers’ rights with the EU and an effective customs union until the next election. The likes of Lisa Nandy and Stephen Kinnock – Labour MPs reconciled to Brexit who rejected May’s deal three times – were taken in by the progress.

But the PM’s position unravelled soon after her speech unveiling the proposals. Members of her party could not stomach her movement on a second referendum and subsequently secured her demise. A new Prime Minister will be announced on 23 July, and both candidates, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, have said they would leave the EU without a deal.

Several Labour MPs – including Nandy and Kinnock – say they would vote for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill as currently constituted at second reading. But their Tory counterparts who voted for the deal consistently are not having it. “Are you for real? Is this some kind of bad joke?” asks Tory backbencher Paul Masterton. “I’m not bloody interested about what you would do if you had a magical time machine. I’m interested in you taking some responsibility for the mess we are in now.”

David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, tells The House: “It’s very frustrating. It’s a bit late now. It was very obvious that was the big moment.”

The caucus of Labour MPs who want to see Brexit through are facing up to the new political reality – if you want to prevent no deal, the options for parliament are beginning to narrow. Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon and a supporter of a Norway-style Brexit, believes the Withdrawal Agreement Bill offers the only realistic means of ensuring the UK leaves the EU with a deal in place.

The legislation, which would be required to implement a withdrawal agreement, offers supporters of a second referendum their only realistic shot of securing another public vote, he argues, saying MPs could amend the bill at committee stage (he also argues the Commons could push to make no deal effectively illegal). Kinnock says he would be willing to compromise and potentially support a second referendum if it gets the bill over the line. “I will do whatever it takes now to prevent a catastrophic no deal crash out on the 31st of October. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is actually the only game in town.”

Should it come down to it, Kinnock says he would “absolutely” support a no-confidence motion against a Tory government (another route MPs feel could stop a no deal exit), but warns it is not guaranteed to pass. “Will turkeys vote for Christmas?” he asks of Conservative MPs backing such a move.

On Monday, Jeremy Corbyn confirmed Labour would campaign for Remain in any referendum called on a Conservative deal. While welcomed by advocates of another vote, the Nandys and Kinnocks of the world were left bemused. “It looks very likely to me that the consequence of what was announced is that Labour is now irrelevant, and we’re now getting a Tory deal or no deal at all,” says Nandy.

“The difficulty with what happened is that while our eyes are on the internal politics within the Labour party and trying to hold the thing together, we’ve not stopped to pause and think, what is the actual reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.

“The reality is a Tory-dominated parliament that has no majority for a second referendum. So, the choices that are facing us are to do a deal, to leave with no deal or revoke, and we need to start grappling with those choices.”

The fact is, however, that Johnson or Hunt are unlikely to come to Parliament with the same proposals outlined by May. Both have also pledged to alter the backstop (a move which Nandy opposes). Kinnock hopes that the future PM will want to secure an agreement, and so would be willing to make compromises palatable to Labour MPs.

An added complication for those who want a deal is trying to convince their colleagues to support a bill brought forward by the frontrunner, Johnson. “I think that all of this is now so toxic that there is no decision that you can make around Brexit that isn’t going to upset a lot of people. The bigger added complication is less about Boris Johnson and more about Labour’s new position because potentially what we’ve done is ruled ourselves out of any further talks or ability to influence a Tory deal,” argues Nandy.

Kinnock calls on his colleagues to put the nation above party politics. “Sometimes in life as in politics, you do have some strange bedfellows. We all know what Boris is like, what sort of man he is. But I think that we are in a situation now where every day that goes by we edge closer and closer to a no deal catastrophe,” he says.

Twenty-six Labour MPs wrote to Corbyn last month stating their opposition to a second referendum, and a “substantial number of frontbenchers” I’m told also want a deal. Kinnock argues if Corbyn came out in support of backing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at second reading “dozens and dozens and dozens” of Labour MPs would flock to that position, on the proviso the party could then try and push forward amendments.

But given Kinnock’s assessment of where we are now and the options that are on the table, does he not regret rejecting the Brexit deal three times? “I felt that it was too risky to back those meaningful votes because it was such a leap of faith and the future relationship could have gone in any which way. I just did not feel that that was the right thing to do. So, no, I don’t regret that,” he says.

“I underestimated how we would get to a point where the purists were running the show and I’m afraid those advocating a second referendum did their best to torpedo the cross-party talks… If I could have predicted all of those things happening, then maybe I would have thought differently and said right, we better cut our losses even though this is a blind Brexit. But I don’t think I could have foreseen the extent to which people were prepared to allow their ideal version of the world to block what is tolerable.”

He adds: “There’s a mixture of unicorn hunting and virtue signalling where everybody says what they want, and indeed why they want it, but they don’t explain how they’re going to get there. It has plagued the entire three years.”

Nandy, who would take the revocation of Article 50 over a no deal exit, is somewhat deflated. “If you’re wildly optimistic about the future then you really haven’t been paying attention at this stage,” she says. “The prospects of getting any kind of deal that’s palatable to Labour are fairly slim, to be honest.”

While she is “sympathetic” to the tightrope Corbyn has to walk on Brexit, a lack of collective responsibility in the Shadow Cabinet has led to the point where “Leavers think we want to Remain and Remainers think we want to leave”. “When the history of this whole sorry episode in British politics comes to be written, I don’t think we’ll come particularly well out of it, if I’m honest,” she adds.

Hindsight is a powerful thing. Labour MPs who think Brexit should happen realise they have few choices in front of them. But with a changing political complexion, is it all too little, too late?